Thu, Oct 29, 2015 - Page 9 News List

Letting giant technology firms rule smart cities is a bad idea

High-tech is transforming global cities, but the public needs to think hard about who controls a system where all people and things are tracked, all of the time

By Paul Mason  /  The Guardian

There is the tank factory in Beijing that they have turned into an arts complex. There are the coffee joints around Tahrir Square, Cairo, where hijab-wearing women hunch over their laptops. There are the pubs in Pittsburgh, heaving on the days the Steelers play, carved out of the factories and workshops that once made the city great.

All over the world, cities are being reborn. By one estimate, about 80 percent of global GDP is generated in cities — driven by a mixture of urbanization, geographic sprawl and concentrated zones of innovation. As a result, a whole new market has opened up for so-called “smart cities.”

The engineering consultancy Arup defines the smart city as one where “the seams and structures of the various urban systems are made clear, simple, responsive and even malleable” through technology and design.

Specifically, a smart city happens when three specific networks interact: the communications grid, the energy system and the so-called “logistics Internet” — which can track people and things through transport and supply systems.

However, there is a problem: Who controls the project and who owns the data it generates? We live in an age when your supermarket’s software knows who you are from your buying choices; where your e-mail provider can send you advertisements matched to key words in your supposedly private messages.

The issues raised by smart cities go beyond privacy — they raise problems for democracy and control.

More than 2.5 billion people, mostly urban dwellers, voluntarily wear a tracking device — their smartphone. It can tell you the nearest coffee shop, order you a taxi and even find you a nearby potential sex partner because it knows where you are. Hire a bike and the city transport system knows where you start and finish. The privacy issues here are dealt with by limiting the flow of data between public and private sectors, and by making the individual the center of the information flow.

However, in a smart city, you need data to flow freely across sectors that, in the commercial world, would normally be separate. The energy system needs to know what the transport system is doing. And the whole thing needs to be run like a “God game:” The city government, not the individual, must exercise control.

For this reason, early on, the technology companies realized smart could only be built with a new kind of city government. You would have to run the entire city as an integrated system, where every recorded change reconfigures activity elsewhere — so, a traffic incident at point A can temporarily reroute buses, redraw cycle lanes and send additional public transport to affected suburbs. Right now, at every conference and jamboree, mayors and council leaders are being bombarded with marketing pitches for smart-city technologies.

The risks are obvious to anybody familiar with the history of big computing. The first is obsolescence — where a giant company’s software, in industry parlance, “molds like putty, sets like concrete” around existing systems, preventing further innovation and extracting a lot of revenue in the process.

Once you have avoided that, there is the danger of “lock in:” 20 to 40-year contracts signed with an information-technology (IT) provider whose code you are not allowed to see, and which gets to utilize all the data generated freely by citizens. In the worst case, this locks out smaller, more innovative information businesses and freezes out any attempt to make the city’s data open source, free and shareable.

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